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War, Peace and Spirituality


Hendra Gunawan, War and Peace, 1950s. Oil on canvas. National Gallery Singapore

War and Peace presently  hangs in the National Gallery Singapore and is a work by Indonesian artist Hendra Gunawan.

It’s a study in cool blues and turquoises, with sinuous dark accents outlining the figures of 2 Indonesian revolutionary fighters. The fighters dominate the canvas and fluid brushstrokes evoke a sense of otherworldliness. A mountain, or gunung, is seen in the far distance. One of the fighters is bluish-green, while the other’s skin is of a normal human hue. The bluish- green fighter draws the arm of his compatriot back, echoing the way in which an archer pulls a bow back, before releasing an arrow. Both appear to emerge seamlessly from the ground and the use of symbolism abounds in this work. The viewer may be led to consider whether the bluish-green fighter is in fact a kind of spiritual being?

Both fighters depicted in Gunawan’s work have deeply organic and earthy qualities, as would be expected of guerrilla fighters, engaging in combat in villages and jungles. The use of the gunung is also a common device in Indonesian art (it is typically understood in Javanese culture, to refer to the seat of the gods, and is regarded as a fount of cosmic energy and strength).  In War and Peace  the gunung’s outline is seen in the background, unobstrusive, but yet commanding.

If you’re ever looking at Hendra Gunawan’s work, you’d do well to keep art historian Astri Wright’s observations in mind: she notes that Gunawan often uses colour to denote different ethnic groups, such as green skin for Sundanese folk. She has also noted (albeit in the context of  Gunawan’s depiction of women) that there is often a connection to traditional Javanese spiritual symbolism in his works, “in which green is the colour of the divine”.

The work also harks back to Gunawan’s personal history as a revolutionary fighter in the 1940s, having been associated with the Indonesian Communist Party’s cultural organisation, the Lembaga Kebudajaan Rakyat (LEKRA). He also co-founded the People’s Painters, or Pelukis Rakyat which took the view that art should  be inspired by, and understandable to the people. Gunawan was later  jailed for his association with the communists, although art historians such as Clare Holt have contended that membership in LEKRA was not necessarily an indication of one’s political leanings. Rather, the organisation attracted members as it was able to facilitate artistic practices through its sponsorship of artists’ materials and studio space.


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